Meet Al Black: Florida's Prison Painter

Play associated audio

In the 1960s, Al Black could be found cruising up and down Route 1 in his blue-and-white Ford Galaxy — with a trunk full of wet landscape paintings.

At the time, he was a salesman who could snatch your breath away and sell it back to you. As artist Mary Ann Carroll puts it, he could "sell a jacket to a mosquito in summer."

"A salesman is a con-man," Black readily admits himself today. He's a storyteller. And does he have stories to tell.

Black was born on a plantation in Mississippi. One day, he says, a crew boss came by, needing more hands to pick crops. Black was 15 when he left for Florida, and it wasn't long before he met the Highwaymen — as they eventually came to be known.

The Highwaymen: A small group of self-taught African-American artists from the area around Fort Pierce, Fla., who got their start selling vivid landscapes — speed-paintings — from their own cars because, in times of segregation, galleries didn't allow them in.

Black offered his service as a salesman on their behalf.

"But Al Black being Al Black," says historian Gary Monroe, would "generally make more than the artists would make" — by hiking up the sales price and pocketing the difference. He was selling for everyone, says Monroe, who has written a book about the artist.

Then, just when the "Great Florida Art Rush," as they called it, really took off, the group's 29-year-old leader, Alfred Hair, was murdered. Inconsolable, many of the Highwaymen stopped painting altogether, and Black was left without anything to sell. Until he discovered a new painter: himself.

He learned the tricks of the trade from repairing paintings he'd thrown in his trunk. But times had changed. The market for these paintings of pastoral Florida had all but dried up. And for Black, things took a turn for the worse.

"In 1997," writes Monroe, "Al Black was found guilty of fraud and possession of drugs. Ironically, this low point marked the beginning of Black's most productive period as a painter — a decade spent in correctional facilities."

When it was discovered he was a Highwayman, the warden gave Black unprecedented permission to paint murals throughout the facilities, where they remain to this day.

Now out of jail, Black is one of the few Highwaymen who still paints in the old style: outdoors, several canvasses at a time.

"I can be down and out," he says, "feeling bad that morning. But if I can make it out to where I paint, everything picks up ... and makes me feel real good."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit

WAMU 88.5

Kate Mulgrew: "Born With Teeth" (Rebroadcast)

Kate Mulgrew, who stars as "Red" in the Netflix TV series "Orange Is The New Black", opens up in a new memoir about her complicated family and the baby she gave away for adoption as a young woman.


Swapping The Street For The Orchard, City Dwellers Take Their Pick Of Fruit

Urban foragers don't just pick their meals from the trash; many eat only the finest, freshest produce — picked from city trees. The League of Urban Canners harvests fruit from trees to make jam.

Reconsidering The Pilgrims, Piety And America's Founding Principles

Conservatives who want to emphasize America's Christian roots embrace the story of the Pilgrims and the Mayflower Compact. But some historians say their role in the country's founding is overstated.

From Takeout To Breakups: Apps Can Deliver Anything, For A Price

Convenience is at an all-time premium — and a lot of smartphone apps promise to make many of the things we do every day easier. In a time-crunch or sheer laziness, how far will the apps take us?

Leave a Comment

Help keep the conversation civil. Please refer to our Terms of Use and Code of Conduct before posting your comments.